"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Monday, February 24, 2014

Milla Jovovich: God's Own Avatar (+ Laymen's Guide to the Resident Evil Series)


No modern actress has spent more time running in slow motion while firing guns backwards than Milla Jovovich, which considering her start as a neo-hippie musician with a small part in Dazed and Confused (1993), reflects cosmic levels of disillusionment. And I love her, from a safe distance. She's the female post-modern Brundlefly (i.e. Jeff Goldblum) slowly dissolving into CGI replication, from hauntingly gravitas-endowed folkie to warrior queen of the Uncanny Valley -- fighting for her last shreds of un-pixelated humanity with a world-weary sequel-after-sequel determination.

I didn't seek them out, but the first four Resident Evil films have been all over Syfy lately, usually on Saturday afternoons, and I've secretly enjoyed them in a half-asleep lollygag. Repeat viewings don't make the films better, but nor do they get any worse and sometimes that's better than being good in the first place. Having the violence spread between an array of intercut commercials is awesome too. Nothing beats seeing corrupt corporate goons machine gunning civilians / smash cut to the new Mitsubishi Turbo. The pulse of the afternoon advertising blocs entrains to the throbbing din of Milla's battles, creating a symphony of post-modernist random meaning generation.


Mee-la YO-vo-vitch, as her name is pronounced, plays a character with many clones and lives enough for an afternoon of multiple person play, and considering the amount of blue screen this poor woman has to slog through, that she keeps it all real and engaging remains quite a feat, especially considering English is not her first language, or French either. She was born in the Ukraine, wherefrom a genetically superior breed of humans seems to flow, like a 'wirgin spreeng.'

I still listen to her The Divine Comedy-- a 1994 album, equal parts Kate Bush, Arthurian bard, Nordic alien-hybrid, and Jane Birkin, and purer than a crystalline decanter full of airy Scotch--but it came out ten years ago. Does she even have time to pick up a guitar now, with so much zombie blood on her hands? I wish she would. The zombies have suffered enough, and my heart has too -- it needs her swoosh of a voice and 'tick-tock through the medieval graveyard' tromp pop to swain and swillow through the once-more wood.


She gave us only one other musical document, when she quietly plays and sings at a party and tries to light a joint and misses by a few inches to hilarious effect in Dazed and Confused (1993). That lighter may have missed the target but even with this small, mostly dialogue-free part. she established herself indelibly as one of those hauntingly perfect hippie-style goddesses that stir feelings deeper and more ancient than mere attraction, closer to the vicinity of chaste courtly love, wherein the main desire is to be her champion in a joust. The film didn't need her to be great, but with her it was able to break through, like a midnight sun, and it was a great echo of similar moments in films like Marianne Faitfhfull's a capella cafe "As Tears Go By" in Godard's Made in USA (1966).


Bigger movies beckoned, as they will when beautiful, talented, otherworldly girls present themselves and talented Frenchmen take notice their muse hath come. First, there was Luc Besson, commencing with The Fifth Element (1997) to weave Milla into existence from a chunk of raw material into 'the perfect being' and allowing her to speak her own (self-invented) bizarre language. She made a great savior of the universe, we wanted her to save us and so felt guilty and ashamed when she found our dirty little genocides on the historical microfiche she scanned. People mainly remember the crazy orange hair and Gautier white tape suit, but she was never objectified in it - she was more Pris than Rachel, and Besson clearly felt that same courtly joust vibe we did and it carried over to Bruce Willis' cubicle-dwelling cab driver.


In Luc and Milla's next film together, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), she continued the savior angle and evinced great androgynous schizophrenia. You can all but feel some Old Testament-style God rattling her ossicles with shouted orders like an impatient, sugar-addled schoolboy. I know the feeling: every third autumn I become a supernaturally enlightened Taoist monk crazy man: power flows through me and all is love and holy light. But that light has a price, it's difficult to slow down for the normal unconscious and asleep people, but one must, otherwise they think you're merely manic. And one must not give away all one's money and possessions to the first needy homeless man along the road, lest the next one stab you when you can't provide the same for him. Milla gamely and bravely lets that same level of crazy flash across her beautiful features. She takes it all very seriously, commits fully and dangerously, which annoyed the unconscious and asleep critics, used to highbrow roles like Joan being played demure and ladylike and gimme an Oscar-ish. And Milla is too busy foaming at the mouth as the visions and auditory hallucinosis overtake her. For Milla, committing never means being placid or lady-like; she'd rather encourages us to wonder if maybe France was saved by the novelty of her androgynous holy girl madness. The French, unlike Americans, have a great sense of humor when it comes to their own mortality, and they worship gamins in a way America still hasn't grown up enough to understand.


Many critics felt that this was Milla's vanity project, that she had Besson wrapped around her finger and that she was out of her depth and Besson was letting her get away with it. But that's crap, my brothers. The turf is hers by right. For me, there was the sense that she's perfect for the role because of her courtly chaste love-inspiring beauty and grace, ala the loyalty she inspires as the perfect being in The Fifth Element. Messenger was the culmination of a slow build of global devotion. We were ready to storm castles in her name. On the other hand, the film couldn't help being a solid downer, with Milla's terrible bowl haircut and being sold out by the Dauphin in the name of diplomacy and caution and everyone in the French and English armies look so alike it's hard to know who to root for or what's going on. A third is that Milla plays Joan as such a schizophrenic, replete with eye twitches and brown outs, it's hard to know whether to root for her, join the fight, or move to a different table and hide behind a menu. But her notion of God's intervention is so like an alien abduction that it's all looney tunes enough to make one wonder why Besson felt the need to show the royal court scheming and intrigue behind her back at all. Why not just stick with what she sees and feels, so that the betrayal seems to come out of nowhere? The court stuff is a well-photographed bourgeois super snooze compared to Milla's wild jerky eyes and the awesome grey mud and blood.

Ancient Aliens enthusiasts such as yours truly love to contend that benevolent Nordic aliens and fifth dimensional projections from Arcturus have intervened at key moments in our history in order to keep the spirit of a free democracy alive. A Nordic 'angel' appeared to Washington at Valley Forge to convince him to keep going, there's the mysterious storm saving Washington DC from the British in the War of 1812, the surge of storm waves sinking the Spanish fleet for Elizbeth I, and Joan's spirit guide/life coach might well be the same weather-controlling Nordic angel. Recent theories on 'star children' as a newly emerging race of genius ESP children sent here to lead us into a brighter tomorrow might actually play out if one such star child kept her ESP brilliance into adulthood, and was charismatic and enough of an innate showman to genuinely lead an army to victory. I already know her initials: MJ


The idea of Milla as someone to fight for in a gallant Arthurian way (rather than as some obtainable 'prize') has continued into a long and financially lucrative collaboration with current husband, director Paul W.S. Anderson. So while we're here, let's take a gander at the entirety of the RES series, bearing in mind the importance of rock bottom expectations and intercut car commercials:

Resident Evil 
(2002) **1/2
Before it slides into overtly first person zombie shoot-em-up number punching this first film offers an elaborate set-up that promises better things: the Umbrella underground facility is laid out in impressive vertical tracking shots; the uncertain allegiance of the 'Red Queen'--and her projected image of a young girl with an evil (i.e. British) accent--and her gassing all the employees to prevent spreading; Alice waking up in a bath tub with amnesia with a "property of Umbrella Corp." stamp on the inside of her wedding band and slowly remembering how she got there in little expository flashes; the impeccable Michelle Rodriguez as a SWAT team member; the laser grid slicing up SWAT guys, etc. Alas, it's important (to someone) the movie match the feel of the game, so director W.S. Anderson makes sure the Red Queen exposits like announcing the mission of each new Raccoon City level, and each new floor has a new monster or challenge. Anderson gets so hung up on perfecting the MATRIX-cam tracking Milla's slow mo kicks at mid-air pouncing zombie dogs that he forgets any kind of narrative momentum. Still, if Milla's kiss with Michelle Rodriguez had gone on for a few seconds longer, that film would be an enduring classic. Still, it's no worse the fifth time as it is the first.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse 
(2004) **1/2
Bonus points for picking up right where the last film left off, with the zombie plague spreading all through Raccoon City, and for turning one of Alice's old SWAT buddies into a giant killing machine programmed to keep the peace. There's a fascinating moment where this shambling freak massacres a whole SWAT team surrounding a strutting black dude (Mike Epps) who isn't even scratched because as we learn from the monster's video game-like monitors, he's unarmed and hence deemed a civilian, a wry statement right up there with the one in Angels and Demons, on how carrying a gun is much more likely to get you killed than save your life. The cast here includes Jared Harris, late of Mad Men, as a doctor who has a cure and will help our locked-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-gate heroes escape (these including cop hottie in black boots Jill Valentine played grandly by Sienna Guillory [below]) if they find his daughter (Sophie Vavasseur) who happens to be the source model for the Red Queen hologram. So there's layers here, people!


Bonus Points: Some of the big money from the first film's box office shows up in large scale scenes along the wall built to keep the contagion from spreading and there's some natty wall-climbing CGI demons, a motorcycle through a stained glass window, and a big final brawl between Umbrella's top two killing machines, flanked by cool troop helicopters, and an interestingly Teutonic corporate villain (Thomas Kretschmann). Anderson seems to figure out some of his own weaknesses and gives up trying to be the action movie Kubrick and the film opens up a result. Never underestimate breathing room, and enigmatically evil children.

Ultraviolet (2006) - *

Then, in between Resident Evil films, this...  The feeling of flop sweat pervades, with nary a single interesting fight or character or uncliche'd moment and every actor glazed over with enough slick CGI 'make-up' to cause viewers to wonder why they didn't go full CGI animation as they'd clearly feel more comfortable. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, a hack who clearly has some mojo magic that convinces money to throw itself at him (he also wrote the dismal Salt and wrote and directed the underrated but still pointless remake of Total Recall)more than anything this film, along with the Charlize Theron movie version of Æon Flux from the year before, serves almost to make W.S. Anderson Walter Hill by comparison.

Resident Evil: Extinction 
(2007) - ***
The contagion has spread all across the world by this installment - and Alice rides across the Road Warrior-inflected deserts of the American southwest in search of answers before coming to the rescue of a band of hearty young survivors (including Ali Larter) who in the film's best scene are attacked by a murder of zombie crows. Meanwhile a crazy industrial scientist spies on Alice from satellites and prepares his own magic invulnerable monster formula. It ends on a pretty wild cloning note, to become the best in the series up to that point, perhaps because it's directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Aussie behind such 'hits' as Highlander and The Shadow, and way more grounded and skilled as a storyteller and director of actors than Milla's husband, series overseer Anderson. Bonus points for a joint lit in a very moving moment by a SWAT survivor from the previous installment (Oded Ferhr) whose dimly smug smile annoyed me in the previous film but is finally put to good use in his moment of stoner triumph. 

Resident Evil: Afterlife
(2010) - ***
The series was on a roll now and Anderson steps back up to the plate, as if inspired by the lurch forward in quality delivered by Mulcahy in Extinction. It's inspiring to watch a director like PWSA slowly learn from his mistakes and criticism to deliver sequentially better work. Offering much more than the usual slow-mo 3-D shoot-outs and zombie hordes, there's a weird aircraft carrier finale involving monsters and freezer tubes; a hundred Alice clone attack on a Japanese corporation; a crash landing on a roof reminiscent of Escape from New York; cool trilobite-style gem-studded mind control devices; a gigantic axe-wielding monster, and detailed attention to continuing human story lines from the past films. It all adds up to the best entry in the series, not sure if it's still based on the video game by this point but if so, must be some game! I'll stick with the films, though, my wrists can't take too much excitement, too many years typing this shiite, and before that, Atari, and before that DOS programs for the TI-94A.

Speaking of age, after eight years of playing Alice for husband Anderson, and having born unto him a child, Milla actually looks substantially older and wearier than she did in the previous entry. Less and less are the CGI airbrushes able to disguise her slightly curled down nose, weakening chin, crow's feet. I mean this only as a high compliment. The younger girls here are airbrushed to near Maxim levels as part of Umbrella-Disney Corps continued process of filling in the Uncanny Valley with a billion CGI-make-up smoothings.

Despite wildly uneven, even cheap CGI and a dim grungy look (CGI is always easier when you don't have to worry about shadows or contrast), I give Afterlife high marks because it seems at times made by a John Carpenter fan, with a solid stretch of the action--from Alice's crashy rooftop landing onwards; low-key, naturalistic acting with Ali Larter, Boris Kodjoe, and Kacey Clarke to the from the ominous simplicity of some parts of the score to the idea of trying to escape from both a prison and a city rolled into one place: San Francisco. At one point I swear I could hear Kurt Russell hissing "Maggie, he's deadcome on."


BY NOW, 2010, the 'under siege' zombie narrative, with a ragtag dwindling group of survivors dealing with an external threat, was an inescapable cliche within the genre of horror, with the ultimate deadly serious and self-important Walking Dead series being the official last nail in the empty coffin. The arc of banding together with fellow survivors after the apocalypse is comforting to fantasy-retreated loners, of course, the types who watch these films over and over, and if Anderson doesn't quite get to the deadpan layered satirics of Verhoeven's Starship Troopers or basic rules of film (as opposed to PlayStation) at least he's really run with the whole insidious corporation angle until it hums almost meta. If you think I'm off the mark here, see if you can get a few minutes into Ultraviolet and Afterlife will seem like Citizen Kane.

Resident Evil - Retribution 
(2012) ***1/2
As with all the installments, RETRIBUTION continues immediately where it left off from the first, backwards in slow motion across the under-attack aircraft carrier until Alice wakes up from falling overboard and into a suburban idyll mirroring the one at the start of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. Herein Alice is married to Oded Ferhr and they have a deaf child who Milla must hide from the invading undead--seemingly on a loop--until she slowly realizes it's all part of a weird sprawling simulation-lab underwater lair. Explaining too much of the plot loosens it's 'anything can happen in billionaire corporate black box research, cos' vibe so I'll say no more except to recommend you see it with headphones blaring, at night with the lights off, on a big home screen, without your judgmental friends or lovers around, who are bound to snicker at the terrible video game upgrade exposition ("your mission: collect all the pink circles and escape to the surface--good luck!").

The story line manages the return of all Alice's allies and other avatars from past films: Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriguez and the always vaguely familiar Boris Kodjoe, not to mention the bad guy from the previous film is now on Alice's side and sends super spy Ada Wong (Binging Li) to her rescue. There are new monsters and old and I appreciate that Anderson has the good taste to make the simulations real, rather than just some Matrix or Sucker Punch bit of nullification and as with the third the idea of all the dead Alices from past 'simulations' adds an eerie metatextual edge, positing the viewer as just as much the evil Umbrella, bringing suffering Alice avatars into the world (3 for a quarter?) to vent your pent-up teen angst through. Milla seems game for these new roles within roles, though I'm not crazy about the leather bustle. Is Anderson abusing her like Welles did Hayworth for some imagined transgression? It just doesn't look comfortable, or particularly practical unless, like the western gunfighters did, you use belt holsters.


A bit like the Beckinsale-Wiseman Underworld series, there's a sense that the married director-star filmmakers are like hey, whatever we do the critics are gonna hate it but the fans are gonna see it over and over - so let's please the fans, layer it with detail only multiple viewings will bring out, and not worry about pleasing the bored second stringer critics, already resentful they had to see this Friday afternoon in the multiplex (as I had to) instead of in a press screening (which films like this never give, smartly).

Thus it is perhaps that filmmakers like W.S. Anderson, who began as tired hacks with a formulaic video game-based franchise, become, in a sense, slowly improved, along with the digital technology they use, through a decade of experience, benefitting from the rare opportunity of getting to work again and again with their same people, needing to find new things to do to keep their fanbase intere$ted. And I love that the big final battle is almost all women on both sides, and yet it never feels like some sexy catfight but a genuine dangerous showdown. Keep up the good work, ladies!

Milla's done other stuff, some of which I've written about:

The Fourth Kind (2009)
*
Milla gets to make grave diagnoses.... Resident Evil's Alice has filled her with holy power so she can say, "Something is going on, there's something strange going on in Nome" and have it ring with menace, or "conversion phenomena is something not a lot of people understand," implying she does! She understands less as time goes on, but is still miles ahead of the spooked and reactionary sheriff... or is she? A tense stand-off and a violent knife murder seemed shuffled in to keep you from nodding off and Milla's blamed for everything! Milla's haunted eyes are beautifully lit, so we can contemplate her hybrid status as we go along, and realize yes, Virginia, aliens are among us, and some of them are very, very adorable." (full piece here)

A Perfect Getaway (2009)
***1/2
I loved PERFECT GETAWAY, but my expectations were rock bottom as I think I was confusing it with reviews I'd read of TURISTAS! (more)

Faces in the Crowd (2011)
***
Milla witnesses a murder from the infamous 'melancholy slasher,' gets knocked out, and wakes up with face blindness; her husband is soon being played by an array of different actors, changing with each shot; her clique of cool girl friends don't change much (and one of them,Valentina Vargas, steals all her scenes as a lady so badass she says of one night stands: "when you wake up and don't know for a minute where you are or who is sleeping next to you - I live for that!") but half the time Milla doesn't even see herself in the mirror, and when you're as hot as Milla that's tragic, but even scarier is that if the murderer came into her house and said he was her husband she wouldn't even know he wasn't. And Milla expertly evokes that horror, showing the end result of a life in films that has not been joyous. She's fought and dealt with horrors for quite awhile. She's scrappy, but by now hasn't she paid her dues? Dear God, please give your favorite avatar a nice warm rom-com break, and a chance at another album.


And if you do nod lissen... den to hell mit you!




Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tripping to Tortura: IN A WORLD, ADULT WORLD (2013)


Two worth-your-time 2013 films with similar themes, color schemed posters and even titles, recently made themselves, like whores, available at home: IN A WORLD is a semi-autobiographical female voiceover artist trying to make it in a deep-voiced man's game tale, written and directed by and starring Children's Hospital hottie Lake Bell; ADULT WORLD stars Emma Roberts as Amy, a Syracuse University undergraduate poet who finally realizes she's not 'too good' for her job at an adult bookstore and is written and directed by men (a detail I will be addressing) and bearing a tacky tag line (make it out in above poster if you want, but I warned you). Both 'girl' characters start their films living with their parents, rent-free, and the films chronicle their respective launches into the real 'adult' world, reaching down for the big brass rings, stooping to conquer, and finding help along the way, mostly from sensitive boys and/or male mentors.

Why do I mention one film is made by a woman about a woman, and the other is about a girl made by men? I happen to be a pretentious Syracuse English major / poet who applied at one of the city's many local XXX bookstores ("the endless trains of the faithless" - spouts Robin Williams on the TV commercial playing behind me, advertising the Chevy Silverado, "Find new roads!") so I see deeplier (!) than most to this story so I can swear in court that Amy's adventures in that accursed city may look right (the film was shot there) but just don't add up. She says she's an over-achiever with a straight-A average and is a virgin, yet she is also hot, and yet she wants to be a furious poet. She lets her car get stolen and then admits she has no theft insurance because she spent the money her dad gave her on SASEs, confident of her imminent fame as a poet, which in itself is very suspicious for a supposedly straight-A student, this being the age when most submissions are done via e-mail (and there's not enough poetry journals in the world to warrant such expense. Alas, a great many people are willing to believe real life girls living alone for the first time are idiots like this, ala Juno and Frances Ha! --neither I've been able to see more than five minutes of at a time. (1)

But Amy is just the sort of girl a sexual anxiety-prone male closet-macho writer would create, i.e. one who needs a man who's good at organizing, so said writer can toddle in her wake making exasperated sighs and treating her like a child. That's fine if you're not trying to show someone adapting to the real adult word, the reality of which is that there is no earthly or celestial way a girl as hot as Amy wouldn't get published, laid, and invited to endless readings, even if she shouts her stanzas like a sorority pledge on her third Molson.

Although it's never clear if Amy's in school or out of it, she latches randomly (by finding his book in someone's car) onto a disillusioned middle aged poetry teacher mentor in his -nth mid-life crisis named 'Rat' (John Cusack). This clown does his own sewing, wears a ski cap indoors, and uses the word 'cray' (for crazy). Luckily Cusack is a pro, and clearly had some input into his character; he takes a page from the Bill Murray playbook and modulates his usual aloof warmth to include a complete ambivalence towards towards nearly everything including his own sexual desires. The pleased smile that comes across his face after Amy trashes his apartment has few equals, you have to go back to the 1982 Betty Blue to find another guy as laid back.

He even sews / just like a woman
And yet he can't even be bothered to take her virginity, even as a favor to her. Jean-Hughes Anglade would never stoop to such petty morality! He'd sleep with Amy even knowing it would destroy her respect for him and lead to blackballing and hushed whispers in the dean's council. He would do it as a favor to her, because Amy needs disillusionment; she needs to realize sex needn't be earth-shaking to count as real world experience. These are good lessons that a truly good mentor wouldn't refuse. To paraphrase Wilde, the only thing to do with a cute student protege is make love to her if she's beautiful, and to someone else if she's plain.

The Hall of Languages, behind them, where 90% of all my classes were held

At least that element of ADULT is not overly cliche. But alas, there's a tall drag queen who lets Amy crash at her squat, and teaches her how to smoke weed and dance. Thank God she also doesn't get AIDS halfway through and give Amy a parting monologue about reaching for the sky. Even worse is that Amy gets a job at a homey mom and pop XXX-rated video store (an idea lifted from an old Mr. Show sketch) with a cute stockboy (Evan Peters), allowing for the bait-and-switch sordidness of the title and tag line but without adding up to anything truly subversive.  If this cute XXX store had at least one sleazy element the comedy might have had some bite. If there were rats in the squat, or she had to step over junkies to get up the stairs... something! Adult World, yeah right.

True story: I applied for a clerk job at a XXX store when I was studying up in Syracuse and let me tell you, it was not a mom and pop operation. I remember filling out my application and talking to the fat suspicious owner, who loomed down at me from the tall counter, while what sounded like a woman reaching a lengthy orgasm or else being tortured with hot coals echoed from the back room. I knew I would go insane having to listen to that all day so I began to seem unreliable (not exactly a stretch). "Ever take a polly?" he asked. He meant polygraph test, to assess whether or not I had stolen from past jobs. I told him I would try anything once, but I think he could see I was turning pale after only ten minutes of listening to those shrill, echoing moans. He probably had applicants stand there talking as long as possible to see if they could hack the toxic vibes and nonstop moaning from the peep booths for more than ten minutes (there's no such booths in this mom and pop place, don't worry, honey).

See, Adult WorldThat idea could have been a movie, call it "Ever take a Poly?" but every edge set up for cutting latent baby teeth in Adult World comes to us already sanded possibly through rewrites and second-hand sanitization: Cusack's mentor won't seduce her; the adult bookstore is really just a sweet homey place where everybody knows your name; the drag queen bestie (Armando Riesco) is just a droll nurturer ala John Lithgow in World According to Garp; the cute stock boy supports her and straightens her out as needed, patiently waiting to bust his move until at least an hour of running time and 'growth' has elapsed.

I like a lot of things about Adult World, but it makes me miss another film, Art School Confidential, which is unofficially set at Pratt, where I reside now. Think Jim Broadbent or John Malkovich in that movie would have been so rude as to refuse m'lady's request for de-virginizing? The very idea of refusing such a hottie is hateful to Americans!


That's not a problem for Carol (Lake Bell ) in In a World. She goes right after fellow Children's Hospital star, Ken Marino, a successful voiceover artist who her father (Fred Melamed) has taken as a protege in some twisted effort to have a son (his only other child is played by the always amazing Michaela Watkins). Ms. Bell has always been my Children's Hospital favorite and here she ably carries the film in the tricky role of being both a success and a little disorganized, struggling to make it AND making it, getting by with a little help from her friends and dealing with a dad who desperately wants to keep her from being a success. Dimitri Martin is nice guy sound engineer who helps her get breaks but is too shy to bust a move, though he in turn is helped by an actually cool lesbian wingman, and when Carol does get a break it's from a woman producer (Geena Davis) who has her own problems with sexism. In short, it takes place in a genuinely adult world.

Many comedies are stuck on cliche auto pilot for women characters: either their ditzy or ball-busting career gals, vain actresses, or doting moms, and all idling around until some pasteurized thirtysomething hunk with soft eyes materializes in the midst of a shopping cart collision. But In a World moves forward three squares to capture the awkward phase past the 'ditzy klutz in search of a man' phase, to chronicle the 'what goes on between the lucky break and established success' period. Every time Carol wakes up in the film I found myself worried she had slept through some big gig or audition, because I've been so conditioned to believe that if a film shows a woman waking up alone on the day of a big career-making event, she will wake up late and have missed her chance. I won't spoil whether she does or not, but I think it's interesting that I assumed she would, due to movies.


Much as In a World seems remarkably astute in these areas, Adult World never feels quite real, quite set on a tone or era or even able to depict Syracuse as it really is: Amy's apartment is way too clean; there isn't adequate representation of how everything gets crusted over with salt, especially cars and shoes, or the way frozen slush rises up in a dirty brown wave in the wake of passing cars, etc.  I did respect that her walls just had a Sylvia Plath poster above a mattress on the floor and she was half-trying to commit suicide (very Syracuse), and I like Emma Roberts overall and she's game to go the distance here, but she's still coming into her own as an actress of real gravitas; even when smashing Cusack's guitar she seems like she's just trying on emotions. Of course at that age all poets are too young to realize they can't bum-rush greatness, so either she's an amazing actress or else just perfectly imperfect. Her dad is Eric Roberts! Julia Roberts is her aunt. See, that kind of thing would be cool to see in a movie.


It's that sense of playing herself that makes Bell score so much more points de la resonance. She takes risks and shows us things that might make her friends and employers mad if they think the characters are based on them. Of course In a World has problems too: Carol must be making money, so why she can't afford her own rent in a place as cheap as L.A.? She winds up getting a windfall of work, which is exciting, but a subplot with her sister cheating on her husband with a handsome Irishman doesn't really add up to much compared to the riveting central drama of the father screwing over his own daughter, who in turn is screwing the guy the father's screwing her over for. But half-baked side plots are not something to holler over, and the bitchy voiceover artist party at Ken Marino's house is worth the price of admission alone.

There it is again!
Moving back to the idea of men (and women) being uncomfortable with movies where women move ahead without men approving and helping them (a theme central perhaps to the strange hostility towards the movie Scarlet Diva -- see "Her Body, Her Ashtray"), another true story:

The year was 1987: I scored big at a Syracuse poetry reading, won acclaim and the plum spot opening for Allen Ginsberg when he came to town. Unfortunately my girlfriend got sick and sabotaged me. For my big debut I had been drinking sangria with a lovely girl who had been letting me do all the talking - everyone before me at the reading was nervous and wobbly but I was a huge smash. I decided to always be drinking before readings from then on. In hindsight I realized it was the flirting that calmed me, not just the drinking.

But for Ginsberg, a semester later, I had drunk way too much trying to get that magic back, and now I had a legit girlfriend, no more flirting so I was nervous, the auditorium was packed, and I drank too much and couldn't get a buzz. My hand still shook holding the paper. I didn't stick around to go to the diner with Mr. Ginsberg after the show, as I had been invited to, citing my then-sick girlfriend as an excuse. I bravely ran away / away.

Flash forward: I didn't just leave it at not getting the XXX job. I also tried my hand at an erotic novel, figuring money might be found there (as Amy finds in Adult World). Mine chronicled a disturbing vision I had the year before at a Rochester Dead Show, tripping and having a major 'too many people' bad one, of a gigantic carnival of S&M torture, where people huffed laughing gas while being chain-whipped naked on a merry go round in the middle of an array of robot claw arms.

A housemate had an old LP called Tortura inherited in a stack of interesting old LPs from his uncle. It was a very disturbing thing to listen to--mostly just the sound of whip cracks and impassioned screaming and moaning-- while tripping your face off. And it probably effected that S&M vision of the Dead Show. It was hilarious, but on acid such ceaseless horror takes its toll, and since we always had guests who wanted to hear it and we were always on acid, it seemed like whole cycles of death and rebirth were just endless torturing jail sentence; that outside our realm there was no time, no stopping this deeply-felt soul torture, and that I had been tortured in the past and would be in the future, and the album just ripped open soul scars I'd had far longer than my current incarnation. That uncle also had a lot of Zappa, and "The Torture Never Stops" was also in rotation, and seemed to be confirmation and extension of the grim existential cruelty that the LSD-enhanced Tortura delivered, together they formed an apt summation of the painful truth behind the 20th century first world's curtain of blasé painless decency. My cult-starting tract, Shroomsadoplasticism, was never finished, and typed on a manual typewriter, so there's only one original - with the first and last ten pages long ago fell away... and now the pages are even out of order... so symbolic, man... hell, I'm not even sure I still have those soul scars.

A few years later I realized I'd never be a real poet anymore than a real erotic novelist, because I couldn't get into Hart Crane or Marianne Moore. Trying to understand their poetry was worse than tripping to Tortura. I did a bunch of open mic nights over the years but all that came of it was that the long-haired hippy freak M.C. of the event stole my hot girlfriend. Then after a night at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe (circa 1992), I realized I just could not endure the terrible onslaught of bad poets SHOUTING / in this same /STYLE / every other / WORD / of their / POEM. I'd really hoped Adult World's Amy was going to rant her poetry in that style. I'd be TALKING and THINKING in that STYLE for DAYS after a poetry slam. Didn't Emma Roberts even GO to a POE-etry reading to reSEARCH how to SLAM like a BAD poet?

Then in 1996 I lucked into voiceovers, mentored by a cool older lady from an ad agency that shall go nameless. Then I was told I needed to join AFTRA to do any more. I joined (cost, $1000) - then my mentor lady told me they weren't using AFTRA people, because of the writer's strike. I was on the road again...

So in the early 90s, after I'd been graduated and loose in the uncaring world for five years, (working as a freelance direct mail copywriter), I read that our beloved poetry teacher Stephen Dobyns was suspended from Syracuse for using 'salty' language in the classroom. His suspension was picked up in the NY Times as the exhibit A of the new PC fascism taking over college campuses everywhere:
No one suggests that he offered to trade good grades for sex. He is not accused of sleeping with or propositioning students -- one says he tried to kiss her at a drunken party -- or of the focused protracted hectoring we might call "harassment." The allegations all concern language: specifically, what the committee calls "salty language" used outside the classroom at graduate-student parties. They involve attempts to be funny, and to provoke. There was one cruel sexual remark about a professor who wasn't present, and the suggestion that another might benefit from a "salty" term for a satisfactory sexual encounter.
Is this sexual harassment? Not in any clear sense, but those clear borders have been smudged by university policies that refer to "a hostile workplace," to "patterns of intimidation." "Hostile" and "intimidation" are subjectively defined, as they were by the student who testified (hilariously, I thought, though, again, no one seemed to notice) that he felt intimidated by my friend's use of a "salty" phrase. He felt he was being asked to condone a locker-room atmosphere that might offend the women present.
There was much talk of protecting women from blunt mentions of sex. And the young women who testified were in obvious need of protection. They gulped, trembled and wept, describing how my friend yelled at them in class or failed to encourage their work. Victorian damsels in distress, they used 19th-century language: they had been "shattered" by his rude, "brutish" behavior. After testifying, they seemed radiant, exalted, a state of being that, like so much else, recalled "The Crucible," which used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the Army-McCarthy hearings. --11/26/95 
My fellow students from his class, Abbe and Laurie wrote a letter to the Times citing an example of Dobyns' scathing honesty all three of us remember: there was a seething frat boy in class whose poetry was so seething with misogynistic sexual frustration that even though there was nothing sexual per se in it, just the phrase "huffing and puffing to her house on his Huffy Spitfire" brought waves of douche chill torture to our liberal arts cores.

"What do you think?" Dobyns asked us. "Should we try to help this poem or just take it out into the hall and shoot it?"

With that phrase, we loved him.

Out of politeness we refrained from applauding but most of us laughed. Dobyns didn't need guide rails from some PC Volturi to uncover a misogynist frat boy when he heard one and his fangs came out. Times were different and poetry, at least in his class, still had a violent, dangerous edge. We went to learn poetry not to have our hands held on the road to incompetency's supportive slaughterhouse. Tall, cold, like a Howard Hawks and Max Von Sydow mixture but with no accent or drawl, Dobyns taught us Chekov in a measured way that showed us one might be both masculine and sensitive, serious but with a self-effacing deadpan humor, quiet but with the kind of deadshot aim that means you don't need to waste words (or bullets), and an inflexible personal code that meant tolerance for everything but unconsciousness, misogyny and mediocrity.


Adult World is clearly a product of Syracuse University's Dobyns-less lockstep thinking; it takes place not in my dangerous, alive, edgy Syrause from 85-89 but a PC dead zone of safety bars and bloodless ambivalence. Promising sordid or 'authentic' real world experiences -- squatter drag queens, XXX video stores, older poet mentors living alone and with darting eyes -- it steers well clear of the disgust, disillusionment, the soul scars, the Tortura on acid afternoons, Amy really needs to grow into a decent writer. Some PC chaperone must have shaved it all down from an R to a PG-13 like a furious Olympic curler. The drag queen doesn't even smoke pot in a joint -- it's bad for the lungs! --but uses a vaporizer - and has to let us know that it's medical. The XXX video store is just a friendly family of genial eccentrics, they all but sing "Lean on Me" in perfect harmony to encourage Amy to run after Evan Peters as he saunters off into the midnight rain to catch a flight. And a guy named Rat refuses to take advantage of a willing, hottie protege as if his name meant nothing whatsoever. This the Adult World ain't! Dobyns! Dobyns... come back! 


In a World by contrast is blissfully matured past this kind of naïveté. Carol uses sex and the lack thereof with an adult's savvy of the world, knowing how it changes things for the good and bad every single time. Her scatterbrained aspects feel real rather than workshopped in some hack screenwriting 101 class; she still makes it to her big jobs on time, knows how to not mess up good things by being 'flighty.' A real artist, she's fascinated with accents and determined to master them and to capture real dialogue and the naturalism of speech. Take the above photo for example: in it her sister's tearing her heart out like here is some big cry into your ice cream and talk about boys moment (hubby cheating video) and Bell is quietly pressing play on her recorder to capture her sister's emotional tonality for future use in voiceover and dialect coach work. That's the real trick to becoming a success, not to keep your eye on the big prize but on each successive small one and to never put boys over art, to grant big emotions more power than your craft, to miss an audition because you're expected by the male screenwriter to hole up in your apartment with a cat, an afghan, box of tissues, soap operas, wine, and chocolates. It's what I call the Keith Richards life preserver. A devotion to your craft--be it guitar, painting, writing--keeps your head above water even while the ship goes down all around you.

Cusack says as much in Adult World, but it's one thing to have an older man explain it to a young girl and another to see a girl just fucking doing it for herself with men telling her nothing of any value whatsoever. Cusack even tells Amy to make mistakes, to 'fail better' but Adult World in itself fails the fine art of failing. There's something a little off about a joint written by a boy about a girl taking life lessons from another boy, and then not even following that advice, delivering a stale set of characters that only the strong acting of the players can freshen (unless you find the nurturing gay male bestie of the frazzled heroine thing still subversive). 

If not, well, PC chaperones can clean up 42nd Street all they want, can ban smoking and nanny state a poet's life into irrelevance, but in a real adult world the torture never stops. Suicide isn't just a joke, it's a real option many artists take. If Adult World Amy ever wants to really want to find out what that sort of true life experience is, what true poetry is, she'd best make some genuinely bad decisions, fast, like suffering through the voiceover of Prozac Nation, listening to Tortura on acid, or dying accidentally of autoerotic asphyxiation (as out guitarist did, two weeks before the Lockerbie bombing killed 30 of my classmates). Finding a career writing erotica before you even lose your virginity doesn't really count as truth, he said, knowing of what he speaks, gesturing vaguely at the 'world' from the vantage point of his filth-encrusted podium of flies (all green and buzzlin'), rose thorn whip welts, funerals, and whores! (my voiceover demo reel here --interested parties contact erichk9@aol.com -- and weep). 


NOTES:
1. Strangely enough, those two films are very highly praised yet I can't stand them, but I love Jennifer's Body and Margot at the Wedding, which aren't.. hmmm

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monster Capsules: BAD DREAMS, THE ROOST, DAMNATION ALLEY, AFTER MIDNIGHT, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE

 BAD DREAMS
(1988) Dir. Andrew Fleming
***

This is a film that took a long hard look at the Nightmare on Elm Street box office receipts and said yes, please, even going so far as to cast the same final girl in Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors, Jennifer Rubin, to play basically the same role in basically the same mental hospital. Instead of a Freddie there's Harris, a scarred cult leader played by real life burn victim Richard Lynch. In the 70s prologue he coaxes his hippie flock, "Unity Field," to burn themselves alive in order to unify their souls. Rubin is the only survivor, pulled from the roaring flames, full head of hair intact, and in a coma. When she awakens its 13 years later and she's stuck in a mental ward and, worse, it's the 80s. Jeffrey (Re-Animator) Combs is the strange, handsome shrink who brings her to group therapy in order to introduce us to a rapidly bumped-off set of troubled patients. A stressed Rubin sees Harris beckon to her before each murder. The whole 'unified soul' concept apparently worked, and he's recruiting new acolytes from the therapy group, but try explaining that to hospital staff or the cops, who just think they all committed suicide 'cuz they're crazy. Not that they're not.

The creepiest aspect here is surely Richard Lynch as the cult leader. It looks like he insisted on having a textured flame retardant gel around his face at all times which seems wise considering the amount of flame he's exposed to (and his real life burns). This Lee Strasberg-trained and scary-funny as all hell actor makes a greet creepy villain, but he's not a convincing cult leader. Look at that picture at left, would you want to follow him? A cult leader needs to be seductive as well as just creepy. Could you imagine Robert Englund running a cult? It's hard not to imagine what a cobra-hypnotic presence like Lance Henriksen or Michael Ironside might have brought to the role. No offense to Lynch meant. Maybe I'm jealous because I've always felt I'd make a great cult leader, and my dad was always urging it on me, saying that's where the real money is. In other words, I want my own Unified Field!


The rest of the cast is also very good in that 80s teen horror sort of way. Sharp-eyed punk rock fans will feel strangely drawn to Susan Barnes (Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous StainsRepo Man) and the terrifying Dean Cameron will linger in your mind thanks to his skill at amok basement leaping and bulb punching. As Pauline Kael might say, he all but smashes a hole in the picture. Rubin is very good at wearing her emotions on her sleeve and the Shout Blu-ray reveals every gossamer strand of the glisten in her eyes So yeah, this movie grows on you, separating itself from Freddie Krueger comparisons as it matures. A lot of that probably has to do with its incomparable pedigree: Gale Ann Terminator Hurd produced, and Andrew The Craft Fleming directed.


POST SCRIPT (I wrote this having no idea of the weird link of Lynch's burns coming from lighting himself on fire while on an LSD trip in Central Park in 1967 - now that's a brave actor - not setting himself on fire, but playing a psychedelic-era cult leader who sets himself and his congregation on fire in order to bring them all close together).

THE ROOST
(2005) Dir. Ti West
***

Ti West's first film--hampered only by his inability apparently to motivate actors into a state of wakefulness--The Roost is a surprisingly engaging work of horror retro minimalismEven the carload of mumblecore hipsters are bearable thanks to their low-key delivery, voices low so as not to disrupt our fading attention span. Taking a midnight shortcut along a mysterious road on their way to a wedding, a bat flies into the windshield causing a crash! Cue a kind of Jim Jarmusch version of Planet Terror on a Plan Nine budget as the bunch knock on doors to get help, and the bats inhabit a nearby barn, and their bite turns humans into zombie monsters.


The acting is pretty bland (with the exception of newcomer Vanessa Horneff) but it's hard not to be awed by West's unshakable grasp of what makes horror work. In this case it means trusting his audience and his grasp of the genre in order to use minimalism to generate unease, rather than the usual overwrought whiplash editing and bombast. West's instincts for how long to play a shot or moment are so spot-on he can confidently throw most of the usual horror symbols and dross away. Close-ups of doors slowly opening, for example, are presented completely out of context and for some reason it's scary because we don't even know who's opening the door or who's standing on the other side, if anyone. Genius. He also makes great use of tick-tock momentum, 16mm grain, no daytime scenes at all, a remote location (the Marnie barn) and, most effectively, only diegetic (headlights, porch, dashboard) light which makes the all-consuming darkness of a lonely rural shortcut palpable. The score's an effectively minimalist avant garde mix of drones and cello.

Maybe all this doesn't sound like much on 'paper' but it's all the spookier for being so apparently haphazard. Too bad there's dull stretches of horror host filler with West favorite Tom MANHUNTER Noonan underplaying to the point of sad distraction. If nothing else, it contextualizes the inner film proper, adding a whole new chill by association. Or if you like- it's filler so West could enter THE ROOST as a feature in festivals.

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE
(1990) Dir. John Harrison
**

Three stories with past and future stars: James "Ajax" Remar is a struggling artist who is almost killed--but then spared at last minute--by an inner city gargoyle; he falls for Rae Dawn Chong on the same night and has never seen Kwaidan (1964) so never makes the connection. Another tale has a young Christian Slater, young Julianne Moore, and young Steve Buscemi encounter a shambling mummy (from an Arthur Conan Doyle story) - really dull. Another involves David "New York Dolls" Johansen as a cat assassin hired by wheelchair bound William Hickey in a segment conceived by Stephen King and scripted by George Romero (Season of the Witch). Debbie Harry as a modern cannibal housewife trying to cook for a child occupies the connecting tissue of the tales (The Hansel bides for time by telling the tales, ala 1001 Arabian Nights).


I've never been a fan of horror anthologies (except, of course, Bava's Black Sabbath) too many get hung up on the tired old EC comics-style supernatural comeuppance formula. I have the same problems with Darkside. Even Debbie Harry is surprisingly flavorless as the cannibal gourmet. Haha! "Flavorless,"get it? The script's loaded with that kind of flavorless joke, but because of the great cast it's still essential viewing, even if only while drunk, half-asleep, and baked as a basted Hansel.

AFTER MIDNIGHT
(1995) Dir. The Wheat Brothers
***

At last, a trilogy free of 'supernatural comeuppance.' Underrated fringe weirdo Ramy Zada goes for distance as the psychology teacher who pulls a gun out during class and points it at a snickering jock to teach them all about fear. Said jock is pretty pissed (in the classic "his pants" sense) and later breaks in to the teacher's basement with an axe planning a gruesome revenge. He doesn't know Zada's upstairs conducting a ghost story round robin with some of his cutest students because hey, it's a dark and stormy night. And hey, one of the students is a psychic who senses something wicked's coming up from the basement...

I dug the middle segment best, with its looney tunes midnight warehouse dog attack. Most critics prefer the final story, wherein a creepy celebrity stalker switches gears and comes after said celeb's answering service operator, played by the always worthwhile Marg Helgenberger. Make sure you stick around for the bizarre climax, wherein a burnt skeleton chases the psychic girl with an axe through all the other sets in a vague nod to the climax of The Terminator.  With its simple constructions and slim budget, After Midnight proves that less is more when it comes to horror: Tales from the Darkside has the money but can't venture out of its predictable DC Comics House of Mystery vibe;  After Midnight quits all sense of consensual reality, throws its meager budget at the screen as a distraction and lunges straight for the nightmare logic jugular.

DAMNATION ALLEY
1977 - Directed by Jack Smight - ** 
(for male viewers who were kids in the 70s - ***)

Not an easy film to love but, for some of us, loving Damnation Alley is a challenge that beckons like Everest. We really want, even need, to love it, even if the actual film goes out of its way to suck. Still, if you were a boy in the 70s and read Famous Monsters of Filmland, chances are you longed to take that climb, to escape your parents in that cool armored cruiser (above) and set out across a nuclear landscape populated by almost nothing except giant scorpions, massive deluges of not-quite-giant man-eating roaches, psychotic rednecks, and other things one needn't feel the slightest bit guilty about decimating with rooftop rocket launchers or at the very least, running over or jumping with the detachable motorbike. Every boy of a certain age dreamt of that kind of bedtime-less freedom. A time when drinking or driving age limits, cops and homework would all evaporate like a bad dream (and if there is a girl let her be an easygoing cool Hawksian prostitute/dancer rather than a bossy Fordian pioneer mother/wife). In short, it's a boy's life fantasy of being taught to fire roof-mounted rocket launchers as soon as you're old enough to see over the steering column, and to have a beer and a smoke while you're at it.

Directed by Jack Smight, who gave us such other awful but irresistible films as Midway and Airport 1975, Damnation Alley is a film as wholesome in its fashion as reading Boy's Life magazine at Cub Scouts and then sneaking out after the meeting to light fireworks and shoot your grandfather's 8 gauge shotgun at his empty beer cans. George Peppard is the 'dad' character - identifiable via his terrible fake mustache and lame Southern accent; Jan Michael Vincent is the starry-eyed older brother who gets the girl and lets you ride his cool motorbike; the girl is a young Meryl Streep-style French beauty (Dominique Sanda) picked up in a deserted sand-swept giant gaseous ant-infested Vegas; Paul Winfield is the fifth wheel black guy, killed off early as was (and sadly still is) the custom.


The film begins in one of the best nuclear war recreations in film history: no drama, no hand-wringing, just by-the-book monitoring of screens at a remote missile silo deep in the American southwest: no women or bleeding hearts, no morality or ethics or drama--they just do everything they've been taught and then ---oops yeah, that's right - so did the Russians - game over all around. A few years go by and a chain reaction explosion at their remote facility makes sticking around inadvisable, as well as trimming the survivors down to a convenient handful. There's supposed to be two of these big mad cool vans to traverse the nuclear terrain in, but the film's budget only allows for one, so we seldom see the both of them together. But Smight, we didn't ask to! Make with tha monstiz!

Myriad technical difficulties aside, this has to overall be the mellowest post-nuclear war movie of the 70s, so it's got that at least going for it. Mostly the whole film is long shots of driving through psychedelic electric storms--which I personally love. There's also a strange flood (luckily these vehicles are built to float) and mostly empty deserts. Even the arrival of a kid isn't cause for alarm, since he's played by the perennially feral Jackie Earle Haley, a kid who would never harsh a mellow van vibe.

I almost never find anything disparaging to say about Shout Factory, who have been cleaning up and releasing to Blu-ray a vast host of previously disrespected sci fi and horror titles from the 70s and 80s that would likely be forgotten or bungled otherwise. The Blu-ray of Damnation Alley is amazing overall, with groovy deep blacks. But some of the outdoor scenes don't stack up to the Amazon streaming instant video version, wherein the sky is a dark almost psychedelic green-blue. In the Shout version the sky has been cleaned up to a 'normal' sickly pale normal sky color that's just not as cool --even if it is the original sky (and the Amazon just way too dark overall maybe to hide the transfer's general shittiness?)

Either way, I can't complain; and having it on Blu-ray is literally my 70s boyhood dream come true. And as Lacan might say after a dinner with Lao Tzu, only those fortunate enough to fulfill their childhood dreams have the honor of realizing just how empty they truly are.

Top: Amazon Instant Video / Bottom: Shout Blu-ray

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Frozen Terror! COLD PREY, WIND CHILL, DEAD OF WINTER (AKA LOST SIGNAL), DEVIL'S PASS, COLD PREY 2

It's always nice to ride out the brutal chills of February with horror films more frozen than oneself. I'm writing this during the Winter Olympics and watching people shooting and skiing and luging and getting massive air on snowboarding can leave one feeling inordinately guilty for being so lazy and warm, but watching winter strand poor folks in the middle of nowhere, leading to the collapse of their objective reality and fights for their survival? Cozy affirmation of one's decision to stay indoors.
Here are four solid examples I've seen this week, some of which are on Netflix streaming. So make sure the flask on the collar of your St. Bernard is filled with good brandy, board up and insulate the windows, keep the heater on and keep the generator close --and plunge.

Of course there's already some classics of this genre which have the gold now and forever. The Thing 1951, The Thing 1982, The Thing 2011 (here). And there's also a recent Netflix stream favorite, Pontypool (my praiseful review here).

COLD PREY
("Fritt Vilt") 2006 - Dir. Roar Uthaug
***

Viktoria Winge (above) is a gorgeous Nordic alien hybrid gone snowboarding way off the Norwegian ski map grid with a group of friends, but when one of them breaks his leg they seek shelter at an abandoned ski lodge and... hey, it's not totally abandoned, so it seems, and the generator still works... and there are dusty bottles in the cozy lounge with liquor left. Nice! Proud of its generic slasher roots, Uthaug's film--gorgeously photographed by Daniel Voldheim--indeed builds up from the premise with measured quality, wit, and inexorable tick-tock momentum, studiously avoiding the usual dripping industrial torture basement Rob Zombie video look of so many similar 'wayfarers stranded in a remote killer's lair' horrors. Instead the vibe is all the more unnerving for being so cozy, with just certain things 'off' that begin to mount up.  As the kids take over the ski lodge lounge area, helping themselves to the booze, starting a fire, goofing around they never lapse into that annoying American imbecilic snickering kind of dialogue that feels like it was written by ephebiphobic middle-aged virgins. Here the characters interact and play off each other very well, they're all sympathetic, and the climactic battle way out in the middle of the frozen snow blind emptiness is unique and totally chilling... In Norwegian with English subtitles, not that you really need them. There's apparently a solid sequel that picks up where this leaves off (like Halloween II) and then a third that totally sucks (like Halloween VI).

WIND CHILL
2007 - Dir. Gregory Jacobs
**

Emily Blunt plays a type of college student here that very few films realize exists but whom I know very well, so was initially glad to finally have her day: the old-before-their-time hottie who's gotten away with being 'difficult' for so long (if the girl is hot, dudes will put up anything--to a point) she doesn't know how to stop (the point gets reached) and has become so used to being alone she barely knows how to make or keep a friend--dismissing all guys as losers or pervs, and all girls as jealous or fat. I've known girls like that, one is even in one of my own movies! I can say that because I know she'll never read this, just like Blunt's character wouldn't. In her armored bubble, she's impervious to threat, even accepting a ride from a creepy freshman (Ashton Holmes) home to Delaware for the holidays. Big mistake, of course.

Director Gregory Jacobs' film might have been creepy enough just from Ashton Holmes slowly revealing he doesn't actually live anywhere near where he's taking her, and the whole ride share thing is a ploy to meet her, but that gradually fades away once they're stuck in a weird time loop on a lonesome side road, visited by an array of ghosts, including a scary psycho cop played in a way that sticks with you by Martin Donovan.

 Snowman skull subliminal!
Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, there seems to have been some original intention to make this a creepy two hander with an antisocial stalker and an antisocial narcissist forced to depend on one another for survival, but along the way a bunch of ghosts and a complete disconnection from reality sinks it... almost like the filmmakers realized there wasn't enough material for a feature, so drug in anything they could think of. We can dig the way the collapse of the social sphere and disorienting symbolic structure make one privy to the tricks of ghosts as long as there's some awesome twist or gotcha moment to snap all the disparate elements into place. There isn't, but at least Blunt gets a much warranted chance to carry a film. The journey is supposed to be through Pennsylvania, a very creepy place, but was actually shot in Canada, where life is cheap! 

DEAD OF WINTER
 (AKA LOST SIGNAL)
(2006) Dir. Brian McNamara
 ***1/4

Driving at night in wintery weather when you're tripping way too hard is a very nerve-wracking and bizarre experience, especially wearing smudgy glasses. For one thing, your sense of three-dimensional space is way off, so the road feels like it's just a postcard in your lap and the frost on the edges of your windshield seems to extend before you like a tunnel of ice. When the traffic lights change your heart jumps in your throat--the newly arrived colors prism through the salty windshield in extreme primary and secondary color blasts that come out of nowhere, like a UFO. The red light can feel like blood, the eye of the Cyclops, or a winking god. Taking place over one long New Years night, the film follows a young couple (Al Santos and Sandra McCoy) who do some flavored shots they don't know are spiked with LSD. They split before midnight, and the drugs hit on the drive home. From there they get lost and wind up either killing or be killed-ing. This doesn't make too much sense as the couple does lines of coke before they go too, so they should at least know they're high on something when they start hallucinating strange pursuers. Instead they abandon their car and get lost in the woods at the first sign of ghost cops. But are they crazy or is someone really out to get them? Kudos to the film that for a fair chunk we cannot tell.

I like to think that if director Brian McNamara had the budget he could have created some nice effects in that vein. And I hiss like a rabid snake at this film's detractors, who clearly have never been lost in the woods at night, or taken too much LSD, or both - or become convinced that their girlfriend is trying to kill them, or been feeling the pressure from ghost bathroom attendants to dump all your drugs down into the safety of your throat. I also know the feeling of seeing a face -- usually a townie with a thousand yard stare -- who always seems to be watching from behind some partition in the basement, while your friends are playing darts, and this townie represents your death, and no one else can see him, not that you ask, and when you finally go up to confront him he turns out to be a mix of shadow from the stairway and a macrame owl. Now you get scared because you don't know where your death went, he's not in your sights. You can feel the darts hitting you and drawing blood though they've stopped playing by now. You turn to the 1.75 of Old Granddad to wipe the electric madness away and the weird genderless old face on the label seems to melt and wink, and if you're me, what do you do? Get your ass home, put on the VCR and watch Pre-code Betty Boop cartoons or The Cocoanuts (1929). Never fails.


Good as it all is, McNamara should have checked imdb before naming his film, there's about eighty movies called Dead of Winter. Lost Signal is a pretty weak title, too. May I suggest Acid Snow? Or Ice Tripping?

Another problem is how constant cutting back and forth to the toasty police station and various phone calls amidst law enforcement saps the trippy momentum (it would have been great if we never saw who was on the other line, and had the lady cop just shows up out of the darkness), and yet this is all apparently based on a true story, with recorded 911 calls to prove it! Hell, I believe it. The woods are mysterious, dark and deep, and anyone who's been to them at night, on psychedelics (or as a spooked kid lost in the woods), knows how their ancient magic can bend reality and expose deep archetypal roots too vivid and real for normal adult daytime senses to decode (and, if their senses can't decode it, adults tend to block it out as unimportant, dismissing the impressions of those whose senses aren't so hindered as insanity or 'active imagination'). If the hallucinations here are much less elaborate than, say, the top shelf 'becoming-animal' visions of Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) at least it tries, and that's what counts. Even without CGI or LSD, Dead of Winter allows us to can see what schizophrenics, animals, and psychic mediums see all the time, the fifth dimensional vortex intelligences of the woods, and how the trees are in on it. Which came first, the ghost or our ability to finally see it?! The only answer is isn't.


The low budget is no problem in that regard and in its small way Winter is a sleeper little icicle of modernist ambiguity which anyone whose every been lost for hours whilst a mere block from their apartment or who appreciates the great works of modernist 'collapse of objective reality' ambiguity like Blair Witch Project or The Shining or Antonioni's Red Desert, will understand what director Brian McNamara and writers Robert Egan and Graham Silver are aiming for. These cats clearly know the full range of horrors that LSD can create out of the winter sights and sounds, and having gone to college (and all that entails) up in wintry Syracuse I can authenticate their every last impression. Your mileage may vary but the world can't wait all day for you to catch up and Dead is, at least for a decent chunk, a great entry in the modernist alienation collapse-of-the-symbolic horror genre, and one of those few and rare mysteries wherein we can't tell whether or not the protagonist/s (and by extension the viewer) are being fucked with by external (ghosts - gaslighting spouses, tree spirits) or internal (latent psychosis, LSD, cabin fever) forces --and if quantum physics tells us anything it's that there is no difference.

\ COLD PREY 2
("Fritt Vilt II") 2008 - Dir. Roar Uthaug
***1/2

The first was so good I had to go back for seconds, especially after learning that the sequel picks up right where the last one left off, ala Halloween 2, covering similar 'later that night' and following the final girl to the local hospital territory. Character development is solid, actors likable (no vile cliche like H2's sleaze bag goomba EMT), and the vibe and beautiful cinematography from the first film carry over flawlessly. The action takes its sweet time regrouping, chronicling the interaction of a sleepy little Norwegian local hospital in the process of closing suddenly confronted by all these murders and the comatose monster; but there's a good sense of tick-tock momentum, and a vivid sense of the vast emptiness of Norwegian mountain regions, the lifeless still beauty. Those of us who have misgivings about the medical community's insistence on saving the lives of mortally wounded psychopathic killers will be very pleased at the comeuppance rewarded this 'heroic' practice (they indignantly stop the final girl from the last movie pulling his plug) and the crazy loner sociopath Viking murderer figure is a nice representation of the bloody past of the Norwegian people rising up from the ancient past and into the country's current sleepy socialized medication/education system to smite the sophisticated, racially uniform, and far too-trusting youths. And it's pretty gratifying to see our heroine finally wise up and go all Ripley in Aliens. Nordics rock. Check out the whole issue of Acidemic devoted to their grace and hotness -- issue #7 - The Nordics. 

  DEVIL'S PASS
(2013) - Dir Renny Harlin
**

Renny Harlin is back, his ear low to the ground, like an Indian! Sorry, Native American. Has there been a director who's both made and lost so much money so fast? Now he's playing it a little wiser, ala recent work by De Palma. Slim in budget, returning to an off-the-cuff approach with no chance for budgetary bloating, Devil's Pass (written by Vikram Weet) works a chilled found footage plot that combines elements of many other films melded to the very real mystery of the the 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident. And there's much wodka shots! Much!

That's a good beginning but the thing about a great mystery like Dyatlov is that any 'answer' is going to be a let-down. Harlin manages to keep the diegetic cameras whiplash-free and to ensure there's always some new layer to penetrate, and the acting is pretty top flight, especially Holly Goss in the "I gave you back the map" Heather role. But Harlin never lets the inhospitable barren mountain snowscapes tear the fabric of objective social reality and so the paralyzing fear associated with being unmoored from the symbolic order vanishes with the first explanatory note. In the future, Harlin, don't let the symbolic or explanatory contextualize the mystery! The refusal to commit to a set point of view about what's going on is part of what made Blair Witch and The Shining work so well. Explain it all with scrapbooks and old photos and the unknowable vanishes. If you can't handle the impossibility of objective truth, you should never have looked farther than your own backyard, and certainly not ventured into the white abyss... that's for trippers with balls of ice... like Roar Uthaug! 


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